In Which I Speak All the Languages

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Monday, November 26, 2012
Do you speak more than one language?  How did you learn the additional languages?

When I was a teenager I hitch hiked to Italy and Spain. I was a typical shy kid – I found the challenge of foreign language totally intimidating and I only remember having one conversation on either of those trips, and that was while my friend was asleep, talking french with an Italian. We were both speaking in a second language so both spoke very slowly and simply. I enjoyed it a lot, but it didn’t really encourage me – I thought that real language acquisition would be too difficult ever to manage properly.

Fast forward to a couple of years ago. A friend suggested we go to Spain for a holiday. She could speak some spanish but was rather shy. I crowdsourced on Facebook, and came up with a fail-safe lexicon;

bano (bathroom).

I figured that if I remembered that one word I could happily mime everything else. This resulted in me doing a lot of the ‘talking’. My shyness long gone, I felt that if I didn’t have to mime going to the toilet, then what was to worry about? I enjoyed my ‘conversations’ and felt rather proud of myself. I did pick up jamón because after pointing at enough breakfasts I liked the look of it seemed that saying ‘ham’ was enough to get you the good local grub.

Like everyone in the UK I believe I have some apprehension of american english. We get enough US telly, americans visit here, what’s not to know? Imagine my shock when I first arrived at New York’s airport. I got my passport out and stood in line. When it was my turn the immigration guy said “alakyahatt”. Well, I was quite intimidated – a man in uniform saying something unintelligible to me at immigration, this couldn’t be good news, could it?

This was when I discovered I had an inner Julie Andrews. I said “I beg your pardon?”

“alakyahatt”

(speaking louder and slower – this is what brits do to foreigners) “I’m terribly sorry? Could you repeat that?” (becoming increasingly panicky)

i’m terribly sorry?

This went on for what must have been seconds but I experienced it somewhat differently.

“Oh! You like my HAT! Thank you!”

Well, that was me, as you lot say “schooled”.

Since then I have come to realize that not only does one not know american dialect just from watching TV and films, but also there are key linguistic differences which must be adhered to if you want to communicate. Unless you want to resort to mime.

***

A few years ago I went to Berlin to have an operation. I went on my own, and I relied entirely on german learned over one year, I think it was, at school. Given the fact that I had perfected the art of staring out of the window and imagining survival strategies in the event of an apocalypse. This was inspired by and helped along by BBC’s Survivors. The 70′s original was remade recently so any mini-me people would be well catered for even if there weren’t a glut of such programming. We now know not only what to do and what not to do in the event of a pandemic, but also what to do if everyone gets all undead on us. Excellent.

As an added bonus I know someone in the modern version, so I can say “Look at friend! Isn’t s/he clever!” as well as gleaning survival tips.

Anyway, back to the german. What I have learned from my interest in the english language is that while english is made up of hundreds of languages the vast bulk of it comes from german and french. This is from when toffs spoke french and peasants spoke german. Hence bœuf (on the table, you see) becomes BEEF, while cow, in the field is kuh. What happened, therefore, was that I could speak a fair amount of “german” but was left stranded when I needed a word I didn’t know but which in english is french in origin.

I enjoyed butchering german, and when the taxi driver dropped me off at the airport I said Auf Wiedersehen. Germans seem to like to pretend they don’t know any english, but they watch a lot of the same telly as we do, though most of it is dubbed, but pop songs aren’t.

He replied “So long!”

***

I hadn’t been to France since hitching through as a teenager when my brother and I went with my dad on a trip to see the relics and graves at the Somme. My dad wasn’t being a history buff, he believed he might see the grave of his uncle who had been killed in WW1. This was never going to happen, since the kind of war that that was ensured that everyone and everything got mashed in together. Indeed, two raised areas of ground were known at the time as “Sausage and Mash” and not because that’s where you’d get a hearty meal.

Anyway, talking of hearty meals, we may have eaten the worst meal in France that night, so by the time we were let loose in a small town for lunch my brother and I were grimly determined to eat something nice. The tour guide opted for a liquid lunch, and it seemed everyone else was joining them. We had a look round and there was nothing open – it was a sunday. We spotted, however, an hotel, which seemed to be starting to seat people. While the french would be spending the afternoon eating we had less than an hour. This required advanced french – in short, this required begging.

Happily, french is the one language I can speak in sentences in, and can hooch together make-like phrases well enough to be understood. Considering children in the UK started learning french in primary school, you’d think this would be perfectly a perfectly reasonable thing, but let me tell you, as much as the french don’t want to learn english, we resist learning french, and I was speaking like a HERO.

I looked at the menu and chose what I wanted and my brother and dad agreed to have the same. I asked the waitress if we could have it within an hour and she was totally scandalized and said “Non”. She conceded that we could have the main course but nothing else. I agreed. Then something magical happend – between her and the chef some quick work was turned around and she excitedly announced that we had time for starters before our main. Wonderful! Heaped with gratitude she dashed off and brought us starters. As soon as we’d finished those the mains arrived, and towards the end of the meal, she told us that we would have time for dessert as well.

Our feast was only marred by one thing. Since I do not cook rabbit I do rather like to have it if it’s on a menu. Our mains comprised of rabbit in prune sauce. My dad asked what we were eating and I told him. He balefully told us that his stepfather had killed his pet rabbit during the war.

I bet it was delicious.

***

And finally! I do not speak any Scanwedgian language, but like the rest of the UK I have lapped up Wallander in swedish with subs, The Killing, in danish, Borgen in swedish and danish, and recently I have enjoyed Lilyhammer in english and norwegian. I’ve also seen many nordic films over the years. Although there are plenty english loan words in use there is also something else going on. I would never have thought that spending my formative years in Scotland would have been of much use to me apart from giving me a rather crisp classless accent, but I was wrong. Dear reader, there are quite a few words and expressions which these languages share with lowland scots. It is very exciting to the ear.

It is also useful to have lowland scots for Scrabble and Words With Friends.

watching the detectives

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much was made of sara lund’s trademark fair isles sweater wearing in forbrydelsen/the killing. the outfit and the outcry was reproduced almost to the letter when the US remake aired. while this kind of sweater is traditional garb in scandie countries, i can’t speak for seattle, where the US version was set. however, one article berating her style also wondered if it always rained in seattle. it may interest you to know that wool is rather shower proof, especially that untreated scratchy stuff. as worn by sailors.

of course, tv detectives, like their genre fiction counterparts, need a series of short hand cues to sketch out their characters. the private lives of our protagonists mustn’t interfere with the pacy business of the telling of the crime based yarn. and speaking of yarn, a serviceable but prickly jumper might stand for rather a good external sign of the internal character without taking up too much story time setting out sara’s personality.

back in the day, columbo’s crumpled raincoat spoke volumes about his busy crime fighting life. his lack of interest in his appearance underscored his obsession with solving the crime. his private life was reduced to occasional references to a mrs columbo who we never see. moreover, his references to her were always plot driven.

starsky and hutch were a little more glamorous than columbo, with their fancy car, but, naturally, their outfits, starsky’s big jumper and hutch’s brown leather lacket, didn’t vary much. they had a particularly dapper snitch, huggy bear, who was like a one-man blaxpolitation movie as he boogied on down to let our men know the word on the street.

back to the present day, and the UK is voracious in it’s consumption of crime and detection, and for once, i am right on board with the popular mindset.

after wallander broke in the UK, with it’s UK versions quickly being eclipsed by the swedish originals, it became evident that UK viewers really didn’t mind subtitles with their drama if it was good enough. and we have been treated not only to the killing, but also, more recently, to the bridge. the bridge features another female lead detective, saga norén, who not only has a good solid image and a careless relationship with clothes, but also, reader, she has ASPERGERS. this makes for a really interesting set of sub plots. saga wears drippy beige tops which she often changes at work with a cursory squirt of deodorant to the arm pits as she works through the night. on top of this she wears a leather gilet with leather trousers (think biker rather than avengers) and she tops these with a double breasted brown coat which she shrugs on as she strides out, with her mind firmly on the case.

i am not sure where everyone else is with engrenages (called spiral in the UK) but i have just been gobbling up box set after box set recently, and it seems that series four is imminent. i bloody hope it is, because i am soooo hooked. engrenages is french, which obvs is not scandie, but again, we watch it with subs. (it is not usual in the UK to dub foreign stuff.) although i can enjoy seeing where english and scandenavian languages overlap i can’t kid myself that i actually understand what i am hearing with any semblance of flow. although i ignored school to the best of my ability when i was there, staring out of windows, doodling, passing notes, french was considered our ‘second language’ and was taught from early primary school onward. i think i even scraped an ‘o’ level. so it is SUPER EXCITING for me to watch french stuff because i can read and listen and pick up new words. french is an excellent language. a recent addition to my vocab is the french for wheelchair. chaise roulade! wonderful! like a cake or a soft cheese!

anyway, i digress. so – what does laure, who heads up engrenages, wear? well, on a day to day basis she is a scruffy herbert. however, she does do a nice line in layered t shirts. no matter how much fancier she looks than our sara or our saga, though,  it is only by a sliver, and we regularly get to see the contrast between her chronically underslept look and the glossy barrister joséphine karlsson (seen in this clip in day wear, but believe me, she scrubs up pretty damn well).